Rodney King became part of Los Angeles lore, starting one March night in 1991 when his beating by police officers was videotaped by an amateur photographer.
A one-man show about Rodney King returns to Los Angeles at the end of the month, after performances in New York, Amsterdam, and most recently, in our nation's capital. It's written and performed by a man whose obsession with King began at the end of King's story, after King was found dead in his Rialto swimming pool.
Roger Guenveur Smith never met Rodney King. He says he opened his laptop on Father's Day two years ago and read about King's death. "I was quite moved," he says, "and I wanted to know why." Within five weeks, Smith was onstage, trying to figure it out in front of an audience.
Using interviews, YouTube videos, and the autobiography "Rodney King, the Riot Within," Smith created his one-man show "Rodney King." The piece is different every night – Smith compares it to jazz – but begins with an in-your-face rap song by Willie D and the Ghetto Boys from 1992 entitled "F- Rodney King." Smith says Willie D was "very articulate about why Rodney King was not worthy of our sympathy" — not for the reasons you might think, either. Willie D accused King of being a sellout and an Uncle Tom.
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It's not the first time Smith has taken on real-life events to create an evening of theatre. His "Juan and John" told the tale of the infamous baseball game where Giants pitcher Juan Marichal went after Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with a bat. Smith says he was just a kid in L.A. when it happened, but he remembered burning his Marichal baseball card, repeating the chant of the Watts riots just a week earlier, "Burn, baby, burn."
In his piece about Rodney King, Smith uses a give and take, teasing out of King pieces of his life. He reminds King about that particular night in 1991, "the basketball game was on and you were hitting that Old English 800 Malt Liquor – 40 oz times 40 times 40 and you were never that good at math, right?"
The play ends with the impassioned, impromptu speech delivered by Rodney King as the city of Los Angeles went up in flames: "Can we all get along?"
But Smith performs the entire plea – what he calls "one of the great American speeches" delivered by a man who never even finished high school. "He had learning disabilities, but he spoke under great duress, probably under some alcoholic influence, but he spoke from the heart and he spoke without a script even though he was given a four page speech by his attorneys."
In that rambling speech, a nearly sobbing Rodney King says he "could understand the first upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on and to see the security guard shot on the ground. It's just not right. It's just not right. Because those people will never go again to their families again."
Smith says King stopped a riot.
But King's story of redemption is cut short with his death at the bottom of a swimming pool at the age of 47. The tragedy, Smith says, is that "we thought that he was on his way back, that he had recovered from his wounds, those inflicted by the LAPD and those inflicted by himself."
Smith says younger audiences only know Rodney King from his appearance on "Celebrity Rehab." Smith says it's not surprising that it works as well in Amsterdam as it does in Los Angeles. "I would like to think that Hamlet plays outside of Denmark." Smith says Rodney King's life and untimely demise "are the stuff of which tragedy has consistently and traditionally been made."
"Rodney King" returns to Los Angeles July 24-26 at 8pm at Grand Performances in downtown L.A. The shows are free.